MUMBAI: For possibly the first time it looked like there would be more people than tickets available for the FIFA U-17 World Cup at Navi Mumbai’s DY Patil Stadium. With none of the marquee teams drawn up to play here, it was a struggle to fill up the stands. But as Spain touched base, for their semifinal against Mali, so did the football fans, most of whom swear allegiance to club giants Real Madrid and FC Barcelona.
A father and son walked in, wearing Spain and Barcelona jerseys respectively. Faces with ‘CR7’ painted on scrambled for attention. After half-time, the stadium came alive with a Mexican wave — the first time that there were enough people to actually execute it.
And with Spain dazzling with their precision play, the venue, which had once played host to a Justin Beiber concert, twinkled with thousand torch lights on their mobile phones. There were the few desperate cheers for ‘Mali, Mali’, as the team who had played their group matches in Navi Mumbai made a return trip. But it was drowned by the sheer wonder for La Rojita. With their seniors making famous the tiki-taka, there is a certain pressure on the teens to live up to that style.
But Spain showed right away that they don’t scare easy. They kept up with Mali’s pace and stood up to their physicality. It was their practised rhythm and seemingly telepathic passing that was cutting through Mali’s defence. The Europeans had three chances in the opening 10 minutes and their high-pressing game was rewarded when Abdoulaye Diaby brought down Spain’s Cesar Gelabert in the box. Captain Abel Ruiz calmly converted the penalty in the 19th minute, before doubling the lead in the 43rd minute. Even as Spain’s confidence soared, Mali kept on shooting blanks at the other end. Their midfield — mainly Hadji Drame and Salam Jiddou — didn’t let Spain take control, but the Africans were wasteful. They had 29 attempts on goal, but were on target on only four occasions.
The biggest miss, though, was by the referee. With Spain leading 2-0, Mali’s Cheick Doucoure shot from the edge of the box in the 62nd minute. The ball crashed into the crossbar and bounced inside the goal, but the referee, not aided by goal-line technology here, waived it. Mali finally scored through Lassana Ndiaye in the 74th minute, but it was little too late. On the eve of the match, coach Santiago Denia had said that the team had made small adjustments. The tactical tinkering has seen the team get progressively better and the Spanish are truly turning on the charm offensive. Spain rode into their fourth World Cup final on the back of a sparkling performance — especially by Gelabert, winger Ferran Torres, who scored their third goal and Ruiz.